man standing off to the side looking down at a marble bust of another man laying atop a pile of broken columns

By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét

Start Free Trial

By the Waters of Babylon Summary

By the Waters of Babylon” is a post-apocalyptic story about humanity’s relationship with technology.

  • The remnants of humanity have gathered into tribes and cling to superstitions for survival.
  • Newly initiated priest John travels to the Dead Lands, a wasteland that only priests are allowed to visit.
  • In the Dead Lands, John encounters the corpse of a “god” and realizes that he is actually in the ruins of a city and that the gods were just humans, killed by their own hubris.
  • He plans to bring the ruined city’s technologies back to his people, believing that they will use the knowledge more wisely than their predecessors.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on September 16, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 783

The story’s narrator, John, introduces himself as the son of a priest and a member of the Hill People. He explains that in his society, it is forbidden to go to the “Dead Places” except to scavenge for metal, and the only people allowed to touch that metal are priests and their sons. Even more strictly forbidden, however, is journeying east to the “Place of the Gods,” where the ruins left behind by the “Great Burning” stand.

John was singled out to become a priest when his father handed him a piece of metal and John did not die. While he was afraid the first time he went to a Dead Place with his father, he is not afraid now, and as an apprentice priest he has gone to the Dead Places by himself. He has also been educated in the secret knowledge of the priests, learning reading and writing, medicine, “the chants and the spells,” and stories of the gods. This education has left him deeply curious, and he yearns to learn more about the world.

As soon as he comes of age, John approaches his father and asks for permission to go on a journey. He also tells his father about his recurring dream of a “great Dead Place” where the gods walk. John’s father gives John his blessing for his journey but cautions him that his dream is very strong and “may eat [him] up.” He then reminds John that it is forbidden to travel to the Place of the Gods, but he also predicts that John may be a great priest one day.

John leaves his village and travels east, following the signs he sees in nature—an eagle and a group of deer both traveling east. He shoots and kills a panther with his bow and arrow and takes this as a sign that he must continue eastward, despite his misgivings about defying the law of his people. After eight days, during which he finds a knife in one of the Dead Places and avoids the hunting parties of the Forest People, he comes to the great Ou-dis-sun river and sees the Place of the Gods on the other side. That night he tells himself that he will return to his village, but he knows that he will really continue on to the Place of the Gods.

The next morning, John builds a raft and sails down the river, prepared to die when he reaches the forbidden place. He sees vast ruined bridges crossing the river and is nearly killed when his raft turns over, but he manages to swim to shore. In the Place of the Gods he sees empty towers, “god-roads,” and the marks of the Great Burning. He also discovers a broken statue of a man or god, inscribed with the name “ASHING.” Traveling north, John enters a great “temple” in search of food and drink, which he finds.

John continues north along a vast god-road and enters a high tower, climbing the stairs to the top floor. There he finds a “place of great riches,” a series of dusty rooms full of rugs, paintings, chairs, books, and devices operated by long-gone “magic.” When night falls, he builds a fire in the fireplace and goes to sleep. He is awakened by a vision of the Place of the Gods as it had been when the gods lived—a bustling metropolis full of gods and their great tools and “chariots.” John is in awe of the vision and of the gods’ power and wisdom. Then he witnesses the Great Burning that destroyed the gods and ruined their city, and he weeps. He cannot understand why this devastation occurred.

In the morning, John discovers a “dead god” sitting by a window and realizes that the god is, in fact, a man. All the gods, he now knows, were people like himself. He returns to his village and shares his knowledge with his father, who declares that John has become “a man and a priest.” His father also cautions John not to reveal his new knowledge to the other Hill People right away. John agrees, musing that the people of the Place of the Gods—“the place newyork”—may have met their doom by consuming too much knowledge too quickly.

Now, John and the other priests go to the Dead Places to search for books as well as metal and to marvel at the tools possessed by those who lived there. When he is chief priest, he says, he will take a group of men to “newyork” to see the images of the gods who were men, for John and his people must build civilization anew.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access